AUGUSTA - The accomplishments of the 125th Legislature are nothing short of extraordinary. What began in January with questions about what course the new Republican majority would take ended with clarity about Maine's new direction.
Faced with daunting fiscal challenges, lawmakers from both parties worked together to enact two emergency budgets which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Early on Republican leaders made the decision to pass the biennial budget with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, instead of pushing through a majority budget without any input from the minority party -- a tactic that has been used against us in the past causing distrust and hostility.
This two-year budget includes the largest tax cut in state history, pension reform that protects the retirement system for state workers while saving Maine taxpayers billions and much-needed changes to the state's social services programs.
At the same time, there are increases to K-12 education and no cuts to higher education funding. Programs that serve our most vulnerable citizens are protected and gimmicks like state shutdown days have been eliminated.
For too long, our state has had the dubious distinction of being a national leader in tax burden. Thanks to this budget, that burden will drop by about $150 million. That translates into Mainers keeping more of their own money. It also brings much needed relief to small businesses and struggling middle class families. The state's top income tax rate will drop from 8.5 percent to 7.95 percent. And roughly 70,000 lower income Mainers will no longer have any tax obligation.
We have also made significant changes to the state employee pension system. Several steps were taken that, while difficult, will ensure the system remains solvent and will save taxpayers billions in the decades to come. While the budget freezes employee pay for the next two years and temporarily caps cost of living increases, it does not require state workers to contribute more to their plans.
Shortly before the budget was signed into law, Gov. LePage joined lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to celebrate passage of another ground-breaking bill that had only three dissenting votes in the House and won unanimous approval in the Senate.
L.D. 1 is a regulatory reform bill that is a first step in removing the many government shackles that hold Maine businesses back and have contributed to our state's unfriendly business environment. The bill was crafted after a bipartisan group of legislators traveled around the state, meeting with business owners. A common theme that emerged from those meetings was that government needs to work with them and not against them.
L.D. 1 takes a major step toward that goal by creating a new liaison between business owners and government regulatory officials. It also creates an environmental self-audit program for businesses and reduces the size and scope of the Board of Environmental Protection.
Health care reform was another significant achievement of this session. L.D. 1333 will extend affordable coverage to more Maine residents and make the system more competitive by giving us the ability to, for the first time, purchase health care across state lines. This will result in substantial savings for individuals and companies that offer health insurance coverage.
And we made much-needed changes to the state's welfare system that strike a balance between maintaining a hand up for those who truly need it and requiring accountability for those who access it. Among the changes is a five-year limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
As the name implies, the program was never intended to be a permanent way of life. It will also require drug testing for those who have been convicted of drug related crimes and end Medicaid benefits for legal noncitizens unless they meet strict hardship criteria.
The 125th Legislature began with bold plans about a new direction for Maine. As with any past Legislature, not every goal was reached and no one got everything they wanted.
But the governor and the Legislature can take pride in what they did for the people of Maine. And the accomplishments of this session are a solid down payment on what voters demanded of Maine government last November.